New leader, same direction: Saskatchewan NDP holds off reform movement

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The Saskatchewan NDP held a leadership convention over the weekend to select a successor to Lorne Calvert, who is retiring from politics. The victor was Dwaine Lingenfelter, long time party stalwart who was a key member of the inner circle of the cabinet during the government of Roy Romanow. But the campaign for the leadership and the convention showed deep divisions within the party.

The NDP swept into office in 1991 under Roy Romanow and were re-elected in 1995. However, in the1999 election the NDP vote fell below that of the right-wing Saskatchewan Party, and they lost their majority of seats in the legislature. The NDP government held on to power by forging an alliance with the three Liberal MLAs. It was expected that Romanow would step down and Lingenfelter, the Deputy Leader, would be his successor.

Alberta detour

However, Lingenfelter resigned his seat in 2000, quit politics, and moved to Calgary to take a position with Nexen, one of Canada’s major oil corporations. Nexen bought the assets of Sask Oil, the provincial Crown corporation privatized by Grant Devine’s Tory government and Romanow’s NDP government. Everyone thought “Link” was gone for good.

In the meantime, politics was changing in Saskatchewan. The number of people voting fell substantially. While the NDP under Lorne Calvert came from behind to narrowly win the 2003 election, by 2007 their time was up, and the Saskatchewan Party won with 51 per cent of the vote.

On the federal level, the NDP vote has fallen to only 25 per cent, and a majority of Saskatchewan voters supporting Stephen Harper in 2004 and 2008. With Calvert scheduled to step down, and no obvious successors among an undistinguished legislative caucus, influential members of the NDP establishment began urging Lingenfelter to return. When he agreed, everyone assumed that he would be selected in a cakewalk.

Unexpected challenges

But there were some surprises to come. Yens Pederson, the party’s president, announced his candidacy. A young lawyer from Regina, he comes from a family with a history of strong support for the National Farmers Union, the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool and the Canadian Wheat Board, as well as the NDP.

Pederson was followed by Deb Higgins from Moose Jaw, a member of the legislative caucus, the Calvert government and a long time activist with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. The last candidate, and the least known, was Ryan Meili, a young doctor from Saskatoon and social justice activist. He had the support of many who had backed Nettie Wiebe in past elections.

Lingenfelter was endorsed by the majority of the party caucus, had strong support from a number of important trade unions, raised by far the most money, had the largest campaign team and signed up the most members. Higgins had the support of several members of the caucus but was hindered, in my opinion, by her close ties to Romanow and Calvert. In contrast, Pedersen and Meili represented a new generation of NDP activists who argued for a major party renewal. This contrast was very evident at the convention, broadcast by the NDP on their web site.

Ideological debates

But there is also a major ideological division. Roy Romanow and his caucus were strong supporters of the general move to the right by social democratic parties. Romanow openly supported the Labour government in New Zealand (1984-90) that all but repealed the Keynesian welfare state and led a broad attack on organized labour by pushing the free market, free trade, deregulation and privatization. Similar “reforms” were undertaken in Australia under the Labour governments headed by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating (1983-96)).

When Romanow stepped down as Premier, he proudly told the Canadian media that his government was “Blairite” before Tony Blair became the leader of the British Labour Party. With their “New Democrat” allies, Bill Clinton and Gerhardt Schroeder, Blair and Gordon Brown embraced the general policy thrust of neoliberalism represented by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. This included the deregulation of the finance industry. The “New Democrats” were also strong supporters of using NATO to back U.S. military actions around the world.

Lingenfelter and Higgins have a long commitment to this now mainstream social democratic form of neoliberalism. But not Pederson and Meili, both of whom called for a return to the tradition of the NDP government of Allan Blakeney (1971-82), with its commitment to social justice, the elimination of poverty and government involvement in the economy. Pederson went the furthest, insisting that the NDP must once again be the party of democratic socialism, putting the needs of people first. Both emphasized building a partnership with Saskatchewan’s growing Aboriginal community.

The NDP governments of Romanow and Calvert took a pro-business position on environmental issues, particularly global warming and climate change, joining with the Alberta Tories. In contrast, Meili and Pederson are very strong on green issues. The key political issue today in Saskatchewan is the proposal to build a nuclear power plant. As Lingenfelter stresses, the NDP has always been a consistent supporter of the uranium and nuclear industries. Pederson and Meili wish to change that.

Preferential ballot not necessarily preferable to delegate convention

The Saskatchewan NDP chose to allow all party members to vote to select the new leader, using the preferential ballot. Many were surprised that Lingenfelter received only 46 per cent of the votes on the first ballot. Between them, the two young rebels received a surprising 40 per cent. On the second ballot Lingenfelter received 55 per cent and Meili 45 per cent.

This election demonstrated the flawed nature of this liberal individualist system of selecting a party leader. Votes are cast before the convention. Polls showed that most NDP members could only identify Lingenfelter. Given the momentum and enthusiasm at the convention, it is likely that a traditional delegate convention would have chosen Meili as the new leader.

The Saskatchewan NDP is in bad shape. Their membership has fallen from 46,000 in 1991 to 13,000 today. The party has been virtually invisible since the 2007 election. Two recent polls show that the Saskatchewan Party government enjoys an approval rating of around 70 per cent.

Few believe that selecting Dwaine Lingenfelter as their leader will make any difference. A missed opportunity.

John W. Warnock is a Regina political economist and political activist and author of Saskatchewan: The Roots of Discontent and Protest (2004).

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